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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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The harder we work, the slower we go?

9 October 2017

The transistor was first invented back in 1947 or 48 and took a good 15 or 20 years to find its way from laboratory breakthrough to use in every-day products such as radios, amplifiers, etc.

To be honest, I'm kind of surprised that it took that long to become successfully commercialised but I guess if you stop and think about it, this was a quantum leap in technology from the earlier thermionic devices (valves) that were used before it so moving from lab to shop shelves was always going to take time.

By comparison, the integrated circuit (first invented about 1960) took less than a decade to become a commercial reality. Perhaps that's because there was no new breathtakingly different underlying physics involved.

Likewise, LEDs were first designed back in 1962 and took only about a decade to become mainstream (albeit expensive) devices.

But what about some more recent technology "breakthroughs"?

Well one that I've been waiting a long, long time for is the small, lightweight, affordable fuel-cell.

These things began being hyped-up about a decade ago with promises that they'd be able to run our laptops and other heavy-drain electronic devices and, instead of a lengthy recharging process, extended operation times could be obtained simply by topping up the small fuel tank used with extra methanol.

Big-name companies signed up for this technology with Toshiba demonstrating a prototype laptop which used this breakthrough technology.

And today we have... ??

Well to be honest, we have lithium-ion batteries which deliver many of the same benefits but without the fire-risk of toting a tank of methanol around with you -- oh, hang on, that might not be true :-) But LiIon batteries are compact, lightweight, fast to charge and have an "adequate" energy density so the methanol fuel cell was effectively stillborn -- superseded before it even hit the market.

However, there are other technologies that should have become far more commonplace now than they appear to have. Let's take the much vaunted supercapacitor for instance.

Now supercaps weren't really "invented" -- they're just a development of existing capacitor technology that has provided far greater electron storage in far smaller physical packages.

The average capacitor used in electronic circuitry has a value of between 1 pico-farad and 10,000 micro-farads (10 milli-farads). A supercapacitor, by comparison, has its capacity to store electrons measured in farads or even kilo-farads.

So what made supercap technology "the big thing" of a decade or so ago?

Well the arrival of nanotechnology significantly improved the storage density that supercaps could deliver. Previously they relied on ultra-thin oxide layers formed by the action of electrolytes on gossamer-thin metal plates to create a massive surface area and dense packing of electrons. Unfortunately, such construction meant that your average supercap could only tolerate two or three volts and could be easily damaged by electrical or physical abuse.

Nanotech promised devices that could handle higher voltages, even better energy densities and more physical robustness.

But where are they?

Well supercaps are already used in quite a bit of electronics equipment, often replacing batteries for short or medium term backup of volatile memory. You can buy these devices off the shelf, with a 50 Farad device costing about US$4 to US$10 depending on type and quantity (cite: Mouser.com).

However, the supercap still fails to live up to the hype, offering dismal energy densities when compared to traditional battery technology and still only rated to very low voltages.

Let's hope that one day, just like the flying car, we'll see the true promise of the supercap realised and all this reliance on (comparatively) short-lived battery technology can be left in the past.

Now I'm sure there are huge numbers of "breakthrough" technologies that have appeared over the past couple of decades that have also failed to make an appearance on the main stage and every day I see more or them appearing on science news sites.

I'm still left wondering however, if perhaps the pace at which "breakthroughs" are converted into commercial realities is slowing. Is this perhaps because today's breakthroughs tend to be in far more complex technologies that require incredible amounts of R&D to commercialise? Or is it because many of these so-called breakthroughs are simply attempts by researchers to hype things up in order to generate more funding for their work?

You tell me.

And what is the piece of technology that had you most excited - but which has failed to actually deliver on its promises?

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